Frank Cisneros knows a thing or two about great-tasting cocktails. To this day, he is still the only bartender to successfully get a work visa to work in Japan as a mixologist.
We caught up with him to learn all about his time working at the Mandarin Oriental in Japan, about learning Japanese from hanging out with yakuza gang members late night, as well as his latest venture—a chic sushi & kaiseki spot in New York with a special cocktail omakase on Sunday and Monday nights.
Not All Bar Scenes Are Created Equal
Cisneros' Japan culinary adventure started in early 2014. “The Mandarin Oriental was looking for a New York or LA-based bartender to come over to Tokyo for 6 months to a year as a sort of cultural exchange consulting bartender program,” he recalls. At the time, Cisneros was in between large New York City bar projects, so he threw his hat into the ring. After teams of lawyers worked to get him a work visa (it was previously unheard of to source bartending talent from overseas), he landed in Tokyo.
Coming from the New York bar scene, Cisneros immediately noticed a few differences. “In the States, we were used to all these events that are both educational and social,” noting the feeling of community and camaraderie amongst bartenders here. In Japan, however, a person in this industry will work for one bar for life, and even though there's mutual respect and admiration of other bars and bartenders, you simply don’t fraternize as often. That, coupled with the language barrier, led to a lonely start.
Another key difference was the pay and hours. “The hours are certainly much longer than in the States and the pay is much lower for equivalent work,” explains Cisneros. He recalls nights in which he and the other bartenders would wrap up around 5AM, take a nap on the staff room floor, and begin again for the next day. In Tokyo bars, there are no bar backs—just a strict senpai/kōhai (master/apprentice) structure—based not on merit or skill, and instead on the time spent at one establishment.
“It doesn’t matter how accomplished you were back in the States; you start from square one in Tokyo and you spend a lot of time cleaning tile grout and cleaning the bar screw by screw before you’re trusted to actually bartend."
As Cisneros's Japanese language skills improved, he slowly gained access to more of Tokyo's underbelly — places inaccessible to casual tourists. “It was really out of necessity, I had to know enough to take orders at the bar. Then after work, nearly no one in the part of Tokyo I lived in could speak any English so it was either going to be a long lonely existence or I had to learn enough to get by.”
Once he learned enough Japanese, he says "Japan became an incredibly different and fun place when I could stumble through enough to really explore the parts that are off limits to the casual traveler.”
Hanging With Yakuza—Members Of Japan’s Criminal Gangs
For those who aren’t familiar with the term Yakuza (also known as gokudō), it refers to members of organized criminal gangs in Japan. Cisneros spent ample time hanging out with Yakuza in late night izakayas—informal Japanese pubs.
“They are my favorite experiences and favorite bars,” he notes.
Cisneros describes these nights as lively and among his favorite experiences in Japan.
“No matter where I am in the world, I always gravitate towards the marginalized of society, the castaways and the outlaws.”
From his lens, they’re not criminals for the most part; they run legitimate businesses that are considered unsavory by mainstream society. “The friends I met involved in that world are some of my best friends in the world.”
A typical night would include singing together, inside jokes, rowdy drinking contests and everything else you might expect at a local watering hole. Except, of course, under the specter of a “no foreigners allowed” sign. “I was lucky to be vetted by some great friends that allowed me to become close with those guys.”
Bringing A Taste Of Japan Back To New York
Cisneros’ latest venture is Uchu, a restaurant with two distinct areas. On one side is an eight seat kaiseki counter/Japanese whisky bar, and on the other is a ten seat omakase sushi bar located in Manhattan’s artsy Lower East Side. “The beverage program at Uchu has always been a love letter to my favorite places in Japan and what Japan taught me about beverage and hospitality in general,” he says.
During his first visit to Meiji shrine in Tokyo, Cisneros was surprised to find barrels of burgundy aging there. “Apparently it was a tradition for Burgundian wine makers to send a barrel to age in the serenity of the temple. I took note of all the names there and vowed to get as many as I could on the list,” he explains.
As Cisneros affirms, burgundy goes great with the food on Uchu’s menu. “If you look around at a restaurant in Ginza Tokyo, people aren’t really drinking sake, they’re drinking tons of burgundy.”
The cocktail list is in many ways a nod to the Miyanohara husband and wife team at Bar Orchard. “I try to make the cocktails inspired by kaiseki, with a mix of materials in the presentation, and some whimsy and seasonality.” Cocktails are presented and prepared in classic Ginza style with a quiet elegance that’s the hallmark of Japanese technique.
As for the food, equal parts technique and soul go into creating the perfect menu. On the sushi front, “Ichimura's sushi is deeply contemplative and at times challenging with very flavorful aged fish."
As Cisneros describes it, he and Ichimura-san share a love for traditional, sometimes rustic sakes with deeper savory flavors. “A lot of the middle part of the meal goes well with an elegant daiginjo. However, I’m always on the hunt for the rare and exclusive.”
Chef Sam Clonts's kaiseki-inspired tasting (Clonts was previously sous chef at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, one of NYC's few three star Michelin restaurants) has many French touches that pair well especially with champagne. “A lot of us in the restaurant industry are champagne fanatics. I have a pretty deep list of grower champagnes, about 50, which is quite a bit for an 18 seat restaurant.”
Sunday Funday At Uchu
When Uchu’s restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, the bar is stacked. “I put together a 5 drink cocktail omakase for those nights,” notes Cisneros. The cocktails change every week but the structure is the same.
Things kick off with a small, light aperitif featuring champagne, seasonal fruit (often grown on the restaurant's own rooftop garden), and shochu. Next, it’s a shaken and refreshing seasonal fruit drink, occasionally making use of Ki No Bi, a Kyoto-produced gin. The third cocktail is a strong stirred classic style drink, such as a twist on a Manhattan, incorporating Japanese ingredients and spirits.
Later, it’s a Japanese whisky ceremony, which Cisneros considers an offshoot of the tea ceremony. Cisneros hand carves blocks of crystal clear ice into diamond shapes for each guest during this portion of the omakase. “We have over 90 Japanese whiskies so I always have a small pour of something interesting to try in that part of the omakase.” Finally, the night ends with a little dessert cocktail, usually a brandy Alexander.
“I think it’s an interesting journey and I’ve had a lot of fun showing people little bits of japan through beverage culture.”
We're just happy he's back in New York City.